the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
Layman's Bible Commentary Layman's Bible Commentary
by Various Authors
THE BOOKS OF EZRA AND NEHEMIAH
Balmer H. Kelly
In the Bibles used in Protestant churches there stand side by side two books, corresponding in name to two great figures of Jewish history, Ezra and Nehemiah. The undoubted prominence and importance of each in the period when the Jews were being restored to the Promised Land is fittingly symbolized by this device, but it obscures the fact that quite probably the two men were contemporary and the more important fact that undoubtedly the two "books" were originally one integrated history. That this is true is indicated by the subject matter as well as by the way in which the ancient scribes, the Masoretes, identified the work.
It is apparent also that the Ezra-Nehemiah story was connected originally with the larger body of literary material we now know as First and Second Chronicles. A comparison of 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 with Ezra 1:1-4 shows the chronological connection between the two and suggests that in an original form First and Second Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah were combined in a single history with perhaps fewer historical difficulties than are posed by the present arrangement and contents of the separate works.
For, as simple and direct as much of the present edition of Ezra and Nehemiah is, there are problems of background and relationship which as yet have no definitive solution. One of these is occasioned by the existence of a version of the same material, in somewhat different arrangement, including some additional matters and diverging in some details from the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah as we have them. This is the "Greek Ezra," a work which many regard as a better rendering of the original work than the form found in the Hebrew Bible and in the English versions. The relationship between the Hebrew books and this Greek work, still further complicated by confusing nomenclature, can be traced in a Bible dictionary.
Of more direct importance in the study of Ezra and Nehemiah is an understanding of the various sources used by the compiler of this history. Here again there are problems, but there are also some definite conclusions based upon clear evidence available to the reader of the books. To begin with, a glance at the marginal note at Ezra 4:7 will indicate that a long section, (4:8-6:18), is not in the Hebrew language but in Aramaic. A look at this section, moreover, will reveal the fact that most of it is concerned with official correspondence. Although the English version does not indicate it, another shorter section, (Ezra 7:12-26), also official correspondence is similarly in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. The presence of these two sections written in one of the official languages of the Persian period, along with their appropriate contents, suggests immediately that here the compiler of the history relied on actual copies of the original, simply transcribing them for his own work.
In addition to these obvious sources there are other more subtle but quite definite indications that the "author" of the work was a "compiler" — in fact, surely the same as the author-compiler of the Books of Chronicles. We find reference to "the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first," followed by a direct quotation from such a book (Nehemiah 7:5-73) and reference to "the Book of the Chronicles" (Nehemiah 12:23).
At the base of the present work, moreover, there was probably an original, firsthand report by Ezra himself, of which some of the narrative phrased in the first person is a remainder. Certainly in the present work, although possibly not so placed by the original compiler, is the firsthand, definitely autobiographical report of Nehemiah, commonly called the Nehemiah Memoir and including Nehemiah 1-7 and scattered portions elsewhere in the book.
The mention of problems prepares the way for the major problem faced by anyone who attempts to get a completely clear and satisfactory historical picture of the Ezra-Nehemiah material. As in the case of the other problems, there is much that is clear, but some puzzling details and one great uncertainty remain. The uncertainty is the relationship between the two men and their historical order.
It appears at first glance that the situation is unconfused. Ezra is dated in his volume (Ezra 7:7) as having returned to Jerusalem in "the seventh year of Ar-ta-xerxes the king." If we assume that Artaxerxes I is meant, as seems likely, then Ezra would be placed in Jerusalem from 458 B.C. onward. Nehemiah worked in Jerusalem from "the twentieth year of King Ar-ta-xerxes" (Nehemiah 2:1) to sometime after "the thirty-second year of Ar-ta-xerxes" (Nehemiah 13:6), or between 445 and 438 B.C. The main difficulty with such a seemingly simple chronological arrangement is to be found in the story the books themselves tell. Ezra is clearly represented as having come to Jerusalem with the intent of teaching the Law (Ezra 7:10) and, in fact, as charged with the responsibility of enforcing the Jewish Law (Ezra 7:25-26). It is not, however, until after the arrival of Nehemiah, thirteen years later, that the story records Ezra’s reading of the Law (Nehemiah 8:1-8). Although the latter account could refer to a repetition of an earlier ceremony, it is strange that such a ceremony should have gone unrecorded. The difficulty, moreover, is compounded when we realize that if the present arrangement is correct, then we must assume that the reforms Ezra is described as having initiated (Ezra 9-10) had to be reinstituted thirteen years later by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13).
Because of this, along with other minor details which conflict with the present order, some interpreters take the date of Ezra’s arrival as referring to the reign of Artaxerxes II, that is, to 398 B.C. Although such a view does fit some features of the book better than any other, it runs into another difficulty in that it requires too late a date for the compilation of the book.
Still another view makes Ezra and Nehemiah contemporaries in Jerusalem, as does the traditional view, but reverses the traditional order of their coming. In this view it becomes necessary, of course, to change the date of Ezra’s arrival, a common suggestion being to substitute "the thirty-seventh year" for "the seventh year" (the error would be explainable on the basis of the Hebrew text). Although this does not by any means solve all of the difficulties of the text, it does make for a reasonably consistent and coherent picture.
When it is asked how the present arrangement came about if the order of the men is to be reversed, we must assume that the fundamental difficulty lay in the placing of the large part of the Nehemiah Memoir (Nehemiah 1-7). That this is not entirely a guess is indicated by the Greek Ezra, which does not include Nehemiah 1-7 in its present position, but connects Nehemiah 7:73 to the end of the Book of Ezra. It is possible that these chapters were wrongly placed in the Ezra narrative, conceivably because the reference to Nehemiah in 8:9 made it advisable to explain his presence in Jerusalem.
The most that can be said is that although the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are historically valuable for the features of the period of the restoration of the Jewish people to their homeland, and although they are accurate in matters of detail, the chronological order they present is extremely uncertain.
The uncertainty of chronology should be no matter of great concern, for as in the case of the other historical writings of the Bible, the purpose of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah is not to give us a step-by-step account of events. Nor does their importance for us rest on their exact recital of chronological fact. They are documents which above all express faith, and do so in such a fashion as to support faith, just as do the earlier books of Israel’s history.
There is, in fact, a close similarity between the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the record of the Exodus events. Like the earlier record, these books recite the great redemptive act of God who himself initiates and carries forward the return of the Chosen People. God, not Ezra or Nehemiah, and especially not Darius or Artaxerxes, is the great Actor in this account. His word is the efficient power and his will directs the course of events. As before, his grace calls his Elect People from bondage and leads them through the perils of the wilderness and into the Land of Promise, where his grace does not desert them. In its rehearsal of this work of God’s grace the story of Ezra and Nehemiah holds forth for God’s people in succeeding days the assurance of the power of the unchanging word and grace of God.
These books, then, put together the fact of God’s continuing activity for his people and the fact of their obedience, never perfect but there all the same. God was beginning again with his own; they were beginning again in honest attempt to understand and do the will of God. The Church will do well to listen to these records as the Word of God to her own life, and to hear from them the possibilities for her own renewal under God.
The Return Under Sheshbazzar. (Ezra 1:1 to Ezra 2:70)
The Decree (Ezra 1:1-4)
The Response (Ezra 1:5-11)
The Lists of Returning Jews (Ezra 2:1-70)
The Construction of the Temple. (Ezra 3:1 to Ezra 6:22)
Early Efforts (Ezra 3:1-13)
The Samaritan Conflict (Ezra 4:1 to Ezra 6:22)
The Return Under Ezra. (Ezra 7:1 to Ezra 10:44)
The Permission to Return (Ezra 7:1-28)
Ezra’s Return (Ezra 8:1-36)
Religious Reforms (Ezra 9:1 to Ezra 10:44)
Nehemiah’s Visit to Jerusalem. (Nehemiah 1:1 to Nehemiah 7:73)
Background (Nehemiah 1:1 to Nehemiah 2:20)
The Work on the Wall (Nehemiah 3:1-32)
Opposition (Nehemiah 4:1-23)
Administrative Difficulties (Nehemiah 5:1-19)
The Completion of the Wall (Nehemiah 6:1 to Nehemiah 7:4)
Genealogical List (Nehemiah 7:5-73)
Religious Reformation. (Nehemiah 7:73 to Nehemiah 10:39)
The Reading of the Law (Nehemiah 7:73 to Nehemiah 8:12)
The Observance of the Feast of Tabernacles (Nehemiah 8:13-18)
The Firm Covenant (Nehemiah 9:1 to Nehemiah 10:39)
Aspects of the New Community. (Nehemiah 11:1 to Nehemiah 13:3)
Lists (Nehemiah 11:1 to Nehemiah 12:26)
The Dedication of the Wall (Nehemiah 12:27-43)
The Worship in the Temple (Nehemiah 12:44 to Nehemiah 13:3)
Nehemiah’s Second Visit to Jerusalem. (Nehemiah 13:4-31)